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Reed Right

In The Not-So-Sexy World of Professional Oboists, 25-Year-Old Katherine Needleman of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Stands Apart

By Gadi Dechter | Posted 12/17/2003

Katherine Needleman, the recently appointed Principal Oboe of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, may not just be the youngest principal oboist of any major national orchestra; according to one Web site, she is also among the best-looking. Beautyinmusic.com* bills itself as "the ultimate guide to the hottest women in classical music," and of the more than 500 musicians honored with a listing Needleman is displayed prominently, showing off her dark, flashing eyes, Mona Lisa smile, and a glittering oboe slung cavalierly over her shoulder. All of which makes the 25-year-old Ellicott City native's lightning dash from Dunloggin Middle School to the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall a particularly attractive local-girl-makes-good story. Especially since Travel and Leisure magazine this year named The Greatest City in America one of the ugliest ones as well.

Of course, there's no shortage of comeliness in classical music. Violinist Lara St. John is famous for album covers featuring herself wearing a strategically placed fiddle and nothing else. The all-female Eroica Trio and violoncello quintet Cello both spice up chamber music with liberal quantities of cleavage. And before female musicians joined strings with seduction, 19th-century Hungarian hunk Franz Liszt had women clawing each other over his post-recital cigarette butts.

The oboe, however, usually inspires heavy breathing only in its players. It is a notoriously finicky woodwind whose practitioners have a rather frumpy reputation for anal retentiveness and obsessive fussing.

"The instrument is imperfect," Needleman admits. "It's difficult, and you can make hideous sounds sometimes."

The oboe's difficulty stems from its design, she says, since the instrument is made of three interlocking wooden tubes, each outfitted with an intricate arrangement of keys that generate various pitches. Sound is made by forcing air into the tiny opening of a fragile double reed. "The tip of the reed is one-10th the thickness of a piece of paper," says Needleman, who hand-carves her own from Chinese cane. "There's only about a millimeter difference between sounding good and sounding like shit."

When skillfully played, however, this ugly duckling is a star actor in the orchestral repertoire. "It can have a really creamy, chocolaty sound, a very dark sound," says Jonathan Carney, concertmaster of the BSO. "It has this timbre, a whiskey tenor. It's an amazingly feminine instrument with a masculine vibe, like Katharine Hepburn."

That penetrating, vocal tone has made the oboe a favorite of orchestral composers, who have given it more than its share of the spotlight. "The cool thing about the oboe is that while we don't have the greatest repertoire in terms of concertos and stuff like that, in the orchestra we just have the greatest solos," Needleman says.

And it's here where Needleman excels. Carney believes that her addition the BSO's ranks in 2002 has already enhanced the stature of the orchestra. "She has a sound that's really distinct," he says. "I think I would recognize her behind closed doors. When a first oboe has a sound like that it can change the whole color and timbre of an orchestra."

Like many professional musicians, Needleman got an early start, though she wasn't exactly weaned on Beethoven. "My father was really into popular music," she says. "He loved Madonna, Pat Benatar. Basically anything with attractive women in it."

While Samuel Needleman was watching MTV in the living room, young Katherine rebelled by listening to classical music on her bedroom radio. "I just loved the music," she says. "I was drawn to it."

Following an unhappy attempt at the violin--"I sounded so bad my family laughed during my first kids' concert"--Needleman took up the oboe, at the suggestion her fifth-grade music teacher at Dunloggin Middle in Ellicott City.

The seriously difficult oboe proved to be a better match for the preternaturally serious child. She took advanced classes in both piano and oboe at Peabody Prep, and later, while a student at the Baltimore School for the Arts, studied with Joseph Turner, then Principal Oboe of the BSO. (Needleman ended up replacing her former teacher, who is now Associate Principal Oboe.)

It wasn't until age 16, when she was offered a scholarship to the famed Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, that Needleman devoted herself full-time to the strange and insular world of the double reed--a commitment that included attending an oboe summer camp.

"It was a total collection of dorks," Needleman laughs. "All these little kids wanting to know the gospel about the oboe, making reeds for 12 hours a day."

It may not have been a Wet Hot American Summer, but a 1995 New York Times article profiling the North Carolina oboe camp singled out the 16-year-old Needleman for her "gorgeous, flowing accounts of the solos in Brahms' First Symphony."

It was at Curtis that Needleman first played under the fingers (he doesn't use a baton) of future BSO conductor Yuri Temirkanov. "It's sort of a tradition for guest conductors of the Philadelphia Orchestra to also conduct a performance of the Curtis student orchestra," she says.

Despite the famous reputation of the Philadelphia conservatory, the orchestral job market is also famously tight. Needleman likes to describe the years after graduation as a time of penury and struggle: "I would basically do anything for money on the oboe." She gave lessons, played the odd church recital, and made extra cash by selling her handmade reeds--the "rejects" that didn't meet her exacting standards--for $10 or $15 a pop to local students.

Hard-luck stories notwithstanding, Needleman actually rose very quickly through the intensely competitive world of orchestral ensembles. She was offered visiting positions with the prestigious St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the now-defunct Savannah Symphony before landing her first permanent principal job with the Richmond Symphony.

"I was quite aggressive about getting jobs," she admits. In fact, she auditioned for the Baltimore job after less than in a year in Richmond, Va. "I'm sure they weren't pleased, but I didn't care," she shrugs. "[Richmond] is not a major orchestra, it's a regional orchestra. I think they know that anyone good is going to try to leave."

Needleman says she doesn't plan on leaving Baltimore anytime soon. "This is a great orchestra," she says. "I'd be happy to be here for the rest of my career."

As evidence of her commitment, Needleman purchased her first house, a four-bedroom 1875 Colonial in the picturesque Dickeyville neighborhood in West Baltimore. Though she swears she's "a lot less nerdy than most oboists," Needleman is more focused on arranging play dates for her dog, Howard, than on her own social life. Most of her time away from rehearsals and performances is spent practicing for rehearsals and performances.

"Right now, since I'm new, I'm devoting a lot of time to being really prepared and stuff," she explains, almost apologetically.

The practice seems to be paying off. In October, the Sun's Tim Smith described Needleman's solo in Ottorino Respighi's "The Birds" as "drop-dead gorgeous."

Smith's suggestive compliment brings us back to the topic of Beauty in Music, and the Web site of the same name. Needleman is blasé about her presence among the hottest women in classical music." "Yeah, somebody told me about that," she says. "I'd never heard of it before."

While other classical outfits may be trying to sex up their subscription sales, Needleman points out, that kind of shallow packaging doesn't apply to oboists, no matter what they look like: The Principal Oboe sits directly behind the conductor's podium, making her all but invisible to most of the audience. And at 5-foot-2, Needleman adds that she could be easy to miss wherever she sat. "When they have a [Family Series] concert and they want the oboe to stand up and show it to the kids, no one ever claps for me because they can't see me," she says.

Of course, there's more than one way to be drop-dead gorgeous, and Baltimore audiences who want to see and hear both will have an opportunity this April, when Needleman makes a rare appearance in front of the podium, to perform Antonio Vivaldi's Oboe Concerto in C-Major.

In the meantime, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra performs Handel's Messiah Friday, Dec. 19, and Saturday, Dec. 20, at 7:30 p.m. For more information, call (410) 783-8000 or visit www.baltimoresymphony.org.

*EDITOR'S NOTE: Our computer's Norton AntiVirus protection detected a virus on this page. Surf at your own peril.

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